arthur lenk 88.
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Israel has actively sought to establish friendly relations with Azerbaijan and other Muslim states in the post-Soviet space. Relations between Israel, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan serve as a model for cooperation between the Jewish state and Muslim nations. As a result of the meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Israel's new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Prague on May 6, an agreement about a state visit by President Shimon Peres to Baku has been reached. Peres is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan near the end of June as a part of his tour of the Muslim republics of the CIS. The visit to Baku will take place "at the highest level and with all honors."
In view of increasing tensions between the Iranian mullahs' regime, which seeks to build nuclear weapons and threaten the Gulf region, and Israel, the invitation for Peres to visit secular Muslim Azerbaijan, Iran's northern neighbor, reaffirms the strategic relationship between the two countries. Diplomatic relations between the countries were established shortly after Azerbaijan's independence in 1992. Premier Binyamin Netanyahu paid a working visit in 1997 on his flight from China.
This diplomatic breakthrough was achieved by Lieberman, who emigrated from the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. Since his days as the minister of strategic affairs (2006-2008), he has pursued a policy of deepening relations with the newly independent states of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Lieberman paid special attention to the Republic of Azerbaijan, strategically located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. He paid an official visit to Azerbaijan in August 2007. During their meeting in Prague, Aliyev and Lieberman discussed the development of Azerbaijani-Israeli relations. Lieberman mentioned that he intends to visit Baku in the near future.
THE CRITICAL AREA of cooperation between the two countries is energy security. Currently Azerbaijan supplies 20 percent of Israel's oil. Due to the high proportion of petrochemicals in bilateral trade, the value of imports from Azerbaijan reached $3.5 billion in 2008. There are also plans to supply Azerbaijani natural gas via Turkey to Haifa. However, there is renewed interest on both sides in expanding bilateral cooperation into new areas such as agriculture, medical research and hi-tech. As part of this effort, a series of events have been organized with the participation of Ambassador to Azerbaijan Arthur Lenk, who has represented the Jewish state in Baku since 2005 and will leave his post in July.
In May 2008, the Israel-Azerbaijani business forum took place in Baku, with the Israeli side represented by Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon. Tel Aviv hosted a forum with representatives of more than 20 companies from Azerbaijan and officials of the Ministry of Economic Development on May 18. The key part of the forum was the signing of an agreement on cooperation between the Israel Export Institute and the Azerbaijan Fund for Export and Investments Encouragement (AzPromo). This agreement institutionalizes mutual trade and investment. The International Agricultural Exhibition Agritech 2009 taking place in Israel will also see the Azerbaijani delegation led by Ilham Guliyev, deputy minister of agriculture.
In late September 2008, Azerbaijan agreed to buy military hardware from Israel. On September 26, Haaretz reported that Azerbaijan will purchase Israeli weapons, including ammunition, mortars and military radio equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the first public acknowledgment of the growing strategic relationship between the two countries, even though the relationship goes back to the first years of Azerbaijani independence. This political move demonstrates Azerbaijani commitment to its Western orientation and independence from Moscow and Teheran.
Israel sought to establish close relations with these countries, because the developments in this region profoundly affect the stability of the Middle East due to its territorial proximity and the size of the predominantly Muslim population of Central Asia and Azerbaijan. The Caspian region can become a fertile ground for the spread of Islamic radicalism and nuclear proliferation. These threats also unite Israel with the elites and secular middle class in these nations. The natural riches of the region make cooperation with these nations even more attractive.
The Obama administration would be wise to see Israel under Netanyahu as an asset and interlocutor in the American strategy toward Eurasia in general and the South Caucasus in particular. Israel's influence among the ex-Soviet republics and the Russian Federation is bound to increase under Lieberman, who has built a broad network of formal and informal relations with the elites of these republics during his tenure as minister of strategic affairs.
News reports about the coming visit of Peres to Azerbaijan have already caused consternation among the Iranian military. The Azerbaijani media reported on May 21 that the Iranian Chief of Staff Hasan Firudabadi made public threats directed at Azerbaijan, saying that a visit by the Israeli president would be an "incorrect step." He added: "The Shimon Peres visit does not seem like a friendly step in Azerbaijani relations with Iran."
The writer is an independent researcher; his book Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus will be published by Routledge in September 2009.